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The Washington Post Book Club

'Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands' by Jorge Amado

Presented by Kunio Francis Tanabe
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page BW10

What do you call an adulterous affair with a ghost? A spiritual liaison? A ghoulish romance? A voodoo hoodoo? Jorge Amado's Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands grapples with just this question. In this comic novel, a passionate yet upright widow faces a dilemma: She adores her new husband, Teodoro, a straitlaced pharmacist, but is haunted by the ghost of her mischievous first husband, Vadinho, who stole her virginity and her heart and died of a heart attack while dancing the samba -- in drag -- during Carnival. This prankster has now returned to romp on her conjugal bed, leaving her covered with love bites. Vadinho is up to his old tricks -- pinching women around the gambling table, tilting the roulette wheel so that his favorite number, 17, shows up without fail. The ghost even disturbs her students at the cooking school where she is respected as a masterful creator of Bahian cuisine. At least Vadinho is discreet at home: He appears naked only while the new husband is not too close by and only Dona Flor can see him. Her problem is that she loves them both. Only a babalão, a shaman who can communicate with the dead, can put an end to her travails.

The author has fused himself with his protagonist, Vadinho, to take the reader on a personal tour of his favorite hangouts in Salvador -- his seaside home in Bahia, the northeastern part of Brazil. He takes us to Fat Carla's cathouse, where the literati meet to discuss poetry of questionable literary value; to the slums, where street urchins dance the samba to the sound of empty tin cans; to the Palace casino, where the well-heeled gamble elbow to elbow with the desperate; and to the spiritual world of macumba, the Brazilian version of voodoo. There are tips on how to conduct a successful wake, Dona Flor's recipe for cooking crabs in coconut milk, herbs and dendê oil, and above all, tips on how to have a good time. Brazilian music is very much an ingredient of this novel. Much like the author, Vadinho is an everyman who feels at home in the varied racial and social strata of Bahian society and uses his wide connections to make things happen in his favor.

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Jorge Amado (1912-2001), Brazil's most beloved writer, is known in the United States mostly as the author of this novel and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. Both have been turned into successful movies starring Sonia Braga and were huge successes on television in Brazil and elsewhere. He has written over 30 books that have been translated into dozens of languages from the original Portuguese.

So I hope you'll join me online for a discussion of Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I'd particularly like to hear from those who have read the novel in the original Portuguese, especially since I fear that much has been lost in translation. Also, to widen the circle of participants, I would like to hear about your other favorite novels that have food and eating as ingredients that spice up the story. The chat will take place on "Book World Live," on Tuesday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m., at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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